It’s been nearly 16 years since Michael Jordan put his left hand on Bryon Russell’s hip and shoved him into basketball folklore.
“People never stop asking about it and they never will,” Russell said last week. “It doesn’t offend me because it happened against the best player to ever play the game.”
Jordan’s game-winner in Game 6 of the NBA Finals remains the most famous shot in playoff history — and by far the most painful for Jazz Nation.
Utah owned an 86-85 lead in the final seconds of a game it needed to win to stay alive when Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone and slowly dribbled up the court.
As the clock ticked down and the noise level inside the Delta Center reached an unimaginable level, Jordan tried to drive left-to-right into the lane. But Russell stayed with him and blocked his path.
Briefly, Jordan didn’t have the space he needed to get to the basket or launch an open shot. So, to create daylight, he pushed Russell out of the way.
It happened so quickly, nobody saw it. Not the officials, the players, not the fans. It appeared Russell had simply lost is balance and stumbled.
Suddenly alone, Jordan launched a straight-away 18-footer that gave the Bulls their sixth championship in eight years.
Russell, who was in Utah last week to participate in a ceremony to honor former Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, was asked about Jordan “at least 100 times” during his visit.
It always happens.
“He pushed me — obviously, “ Russell said. “But they wouldn’t have called it because it was all about Jordan back then. I told someone else today, one guy stood between us and two rings. It wasn’t a team. It was one guy. … He did what the greatest player was supposed to do.”
Russell came to Utah from his home in California, saying he wouldn’t have missed the Sloan celebration.
“I played for some great coaches, but he’s the best,” Russell said. “I would play for Jerry anytime.”
The Jazz took Russell with the 45th overall pick in the 1994 draft. They were scouting a higher-profile Long Beach State teammate, Lucious Harris, when they noticed Russell was always around the ball — making plays. Russell spent nine seasons with the Jazz, although he spent the first four as a player in and out of Sloan’s rotation. Some nights he’d play a lot. Some nights he’d play a little. Some nights he wouldn’t play at all.
“There were times I thought I should have played but didn’t and I didn’t know why,” Russell recalled. “Probably because I was a little bullheaded and arrogant. … But at the end of the day, what Jerry said got through to me.”
A small forward in the NBA, Russell made the transition from a back-to-the-basket player in college.
“I wasn’t a shooter,” he said. “But after every season, there was a meeting and the coaches said, ‘You’ve got to work on this or work on that.’ I always went back worked on my shooting.”
Russell ended up shooting 37.1 percent from the 3-point line in 628 regular-seasons with the Jazz.
Today, Russell lives with his wife and three children near Los Angeles. His oldest attends college. His other two kids are in high school. His son, Brandon, starts on the El Camino Real High School basketball team as a sophomore.
“I’d put him up against any 15-year-old in the country and let him go to work,” Russell said. “I’m proud of him. But I’m proud of them all.”
Now 43, Russell would like to coach sometime down the road.
“Yeah, I’d get into that,” he said. “I think I have a lot to offer, especially being a player at every level, including the highest level and the highest moments.”
Silver a kinder, gentler commissioner?
New commissioner Adam Silver’s regime got off to an interesting start this week, when Chicago’s Joakim Noah avoided a suspension and was fined a relatively small $15,000 for a profanity-laced tirade in a game at Sacramento. Noah was ejected before verbally abusing all three officials as he left the court. He later apologized, saying, “It was a bad mistake on my part. I have to keep my cool under all circumstances.”
Jazz aren’t “going to tank anything”
After losing four straight games, the Jazz took the Western Conference’s worst record (16-33) into Saturday night’s game against Miami. Utah players, of course, have heard plenty about why losing on purpose this year might be beneficial. But Marvin Williams insists it’s not happening: “That’s professional sports. Fans will always have an opinion. You just have to live with it. [But] nobody in a Utah Jazz uniform is going to tank anything.
Blasts from the past a part of the future
Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey has brought back Jerry Sloan as a senior basketball advisor and has John Stockton and Karl Malone counseling young players like Trey Burke, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Why? “At the end of the day,” Lindsey explained, “the program here been so consistent and the culture was so strong for so long, let’s keep the legends of the past part of our program. … To raise the future, we have to understand the standards of the past.”